Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Conversations with a Jesuit

After the baptism on Sunday (see post below), we retired to my friend's parents' house, just across the street from the church, where relatives, friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate and enjoy a sumptuous lunch. My friend's brother-in-law, a Jesuit priest, was also visiting. [For reasons that should be clear, I won't identify where he's from, or which province he belongs to. I'll refer to him as Fr. X.] I've met him before, and we've often had some fascinating conversations about evangelization in India, and I'm always eager to hear of his experiences working in the mission fields, in the India that is so distant from my own. Over mouthfuls of rice and spicy Mangalorean chicken curry, we resumed our conversation in a corner, which continued pretty much most of the day, until he and I ended up at Mass in the evening. Here are some highlights:

On the direct proclamation of Christ: during his formation, it was often stated point-blank that evangelization doesn't involve conversion, as in, making new Christians, or calling people to baptism. Indian Jesuits seem to have been influenced a lot by liberation theology from Latin America, and the proclamation of the kingdom is seen largely in terms of social liberation, development, social work, spreading the values of the kingdom and so on. Direct proclamation is to be downplayed, if not eliminated. In a pluralistic society, interreligious dialogue is important, and in a sense, replaces direct proclamation.

I mentioned that while the aspect of the "transformation of culture" is an important part of evangelization, it cannot proceed without equal importance placed on the dimension of personal conversion, of the need for all to be freed from the power of sin and evil. In fact, transforming culture and transforming individuals is, obviously, closely related. There seems to be a complete suprression of the latter, in favor of the former. He agreed and also thought that things were a bit "out of balance."

His experience in the missions: he's among those who think that all the above isn't necessarily opposed to the proclamation of Christ as savior of all humanity; however, his experience in the field has been mixed: in the area he's worked in, caste consciousness among new Christians remains very strong, and often it seems the Church is reduced to a provider of material needs (the old "rice Christian" scenario). However, in other areas there seems to be a deep hunger for spirituality, that is drawing many, especially Dalits, to the Church. In one area he visited, there are "Krist-bhaktis" (Christ-devotees) that come to a Christian spirituality center; the priests there, however, are opposed to leading any of these to baptism, fearing that their faith will become "institutionalized." On the side of the bhaktis, most are loathe to get baptized, since that changes their legal status, and leads to them losing some of the preferences the state provides for Dalits.

On evangelicals: he hasn't had too much experience with evangelical groups; at one point he spent some time studying the methods of evangelization used by evangelical groups in a tribal area of the state he works in. A lot of these he found very off-putting. "They emphasize way too much the idea that unless someone joins their church, they will go to hell." However, recent persecutions have brought evangelical and Catholic Christians a bit closer, even though during one period of persecution, Catholics were keen to point out that they weren't the ones who were going around converting others!

The other side of Third World Vocations: with the shortage of priests in the West, and many Western religious orders and diocese recruiting directly from the developing world, quite understandably, tensions arise. One perception of priests and religious who go abroad is that they line their own pockets with the generous salaries that Western parishes provide (especially by Indian standards). This is probably a rather unfair perception: religious of course contribute to their own congregations, and so yes, congregations do benefit; many raise money for various works of charity in their home areas. However, it's not uncommon for the families of priests to benefit as well: the priest who's in the West, his family gets newer, bigger homes in the village. It's as if this were just another Gulf job.

On liturgy: he seems to share my concerns about the state of liturgy in urban India. "Mass with the tribals is very different. The faith is alive, and that is reflected in the liturgy. In the cities everything seems a bit lifeless, and somewhat forced or perfunctory." We shared similar thoughts about the state of catechesis of the faithful, and he seemed to agree with my perspective that the Church isn't probably ready to face the challenges faced by a society that is growing more prosperous and somewhat secular (though not at all to the extent in the West! India is a deeply religious place in ways that most Westerners can't really grasp, unless they've been here.) I talked a bit about one of the things close to my heart: the formation of the laity as missionaries, as apostles, and not just consumers. Though the lay faithful have a deep faith, with the possible exceptions of charismatic groups, there is very little sense of mission amongst the laity. There is an abundance of priestly and religious vocations, so the circumstances that might create a different environment for lay involvement in the West don't really exist here. "That's Father or Sister's job" is still the norm here. [Lay ministers are unheard of. Of course, it can't be repeated enough that the lay apostolate is NOT the same as lay ministry, and the sooner we clear up this confusion in the West, the better it will be for the Church and for her mission in the world.]

Reviewing all that I'm struck by just how negative so much of it sounds. It seems that when I'm in India, my critical lenses are working overtime. I am now, more so than ever before, especially after a day-long conversation with this priest (and then on Monday, with another Jesuit friend of mine, over lunch at the Archdiocesan seminary in Bombay, where he teaches), aware of just how little I know the Church in my native land. I know nothing of the tribal Church, or of the lives of Dalit Christians, who form the bulk of the Church in India. I have never visited the souther heartland of Christianity (at least not as a Christian).

Towards the end of the day, I got some advice from Fr. X about planning a pilgrimage for a future trip, down south, visiting some sites associated with St. Thomas (Mylapore, Cranganore) as well as Vailankanni. One day, God willing.


Mac said...

Outright discouragement of baptism seems a little perverse -- where does all that witness lead, then? -- but your friend may have a point as urgent express proselytism possibly being somewhat counterproductive. Certainly, much though I have been persuaded from time to time by Muslim friends of the attractiveness of Islam, when they attempt to close the deal my barriers go up completely: that's just not on the table.

(An Arab Christian friend has queried me as to how I deal with having Muslim friends without being drawn in: well, I'm interested and not unsympathetic, but quite immune to it being taken any further: possibly the offers of friendship wouldn't be so readily made if it were clearer that if that is the object, their time is being wasted, which a little induces a sense in me that I am impliedly making fraudulent misrepresentations.)

Gashwin said...

Oh yes, of course. However, I think "direct proclamation" can mean a lot of different things other than haranguing someone into saying "Jesus is my Lord and Savior" or coercing them to the font.

Nor is "getting someone in" the end of the story either.

I think all of this happens organically, in the context of a loving relationship (with individuals or communities), along with an authentic witness. But most definitely, it doesn't happen automatically.

Mac said...

"Haranguing" is indeed where it becomes frightening to me: and I confess that it has indeed on occasion been downright frightening ("Get away from me! You are seriously terrifying me!")

But when it has come to that it hasn't been that, as 'twere, surely? Does any Christian proselytiser frighten his proposed proselyte? I have to confess that in rural Sindh when I was introduced to a mullah who proposed to turn me around by violence, I was seriously frightened, and when push came to shove, I didn't think, "Oh God, get me out of here!" -- rather, I thought, "Oh sh-t" (excuse my French), "Get me the f-ck out of here!"

liturgy said...

Thanks for this post.
I have just started a section on my website on Ignatian spirituality
and so I thought I would look around the web to see what else there is about Ignatius Loyola.
If you are interested in linking sites to my “Liturgy” let me know (contact - bottom of each page)

Lenten blessings